If you can get past the wafer-thin premise that serves as the foundation for “Bolt,” you’ll find that it is a rather entertaining movie. An extremely predictable movie, yes, but not without its charms. At the very least, Disney gets bonus points for taking a cue from in-house partners Pixar by not stunt-casting the bejeezus out of it.
Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is a genetically enhanced dog that helps his “person” Mindy (Miley Cyrus) fight the nefarious Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell), who has captured Mindy’s scientist father. Now here’s the catch: Bolt is the star of a TV show, and none of this is real, but Bolt believes that all of it is real. The show goes to great lengths to convince Bolt that he is every bit the super-fast, strong, and laser-eyed dog that his character is. The cats that work on the show, of course, tease the daylights out of Bolt with this, and when he escapes his trailer and accidentally winds up getting shipped to New York (wouldn’t the lack of oxygen on a cargo plane have killed him?), Bolt is determined to find Mindy and settle the score with Dr. Calico once and for all. He even takes an alley cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) as a hostage for leverage, since she is naturally working for the powers of evil because she’s a cat.
The movie gets off to an incredible start, beginning with an adorable meet cute between puppy Bolt and young Mindy, then cutting to the latest episode of Bolt’s show, which features action sequences straight out of “The Incredibles” and “The Matrix” (no bullet-cam shots, thankfully). What will derail the movie for many grown-ups, though, is the conversation between the show’s director (an inspired casting choice that will not be spoiled here) and the network executive, a laborious piece of exposition explaining how they have to keep Bolt in the dark about the show because the only way for the audience to believe in the show is if the dog believes in it. Ridonculous, as one of the New York pigeons later says. Speaking of which, doesn’t Disney know that Warner Brothers cornered the market on mobster pigeons 15 years ago on “Animaniacs”?
As you can see, “Bolt” is not bursting with original ideas – there is also a bit involving dogs in a shelter that’s straight from “Over the Hedge,” which itself was stolen from “Finding Nemo,” and to bring it all full circle, “Nemo” is name-checked here – but it does well with the grossly manipulative stuff, like when Mittens teaches Bolt how to use his innate cute dogness to sucker humans into giving him food. There is also a harrowing scene where Mindy’s life is in danger that is remarkably effective. What the movie lacks in creativity, it makes up for with enthusiasm (that would be the TV-obsessed, Bolt-worshiping hamster Rhino, voiced by Mark Walton) and overwrought sentimentality. Even the calculated stuff works, damn them.
You would think that having the Pixar people at their disposal would smarten Disney’s homegrown animated movies somewhat – and to their credit, Pixar BMOC John Lasseter serves as executive producer here – but their recent output is still two or three steps beneath the typical Pixar movie. Looking slick and tugging the heart strings is only half the battle; we have to care about how it looks and how it makes us feel in order for it to work. “Bolt” is a step in the right direction, but it’s all about the now, the short-term cash grab. Ten years from now, no child will declare this to be their favorite Disney movie. Millions, though, will name a Pixar movie – pick one – as their favorite. That says it all, right there.(3 / 5)